If someone had told us during training camp that, when the Chiefs and Broncos met in Week 17, the quarterback matchup would be Patrick Mahomes vs. Paxton Lynch (right), we might have pictured this: The Chiefs playing out the string and turning to their new QB of the future after a disappointing season from Alex Smith; while the Broncos’ second-year passer had come into his own with the help of a dominating defense as Denver returned to the playoffs.
It’s hasn’t played out that way. Mahomes is playing only because the Chiefs are locked into a playoff spot thanks to the best season of Smith’s career. Lynch, meanwhile, missed most of the season with a shoulder injury suffered in preseason and injured his ankle in his only start two weeks ago. He’s probable to return this week, but it’s been a lost year for Lynch and the 5–10 Broncos.
The Chiefs won the first meeting, 29–19, but Smith and the offense struggled badly. But thanks to five Broncos turnovers, including a fumble returned for a Kansas City score, the outcome was never in doubt. Smith won’t be the only Chiefs starter sitting this one out, and the outcome of the rematch really doesn’t matter — other than to the young quarterbacks.
Kansas City at Denver
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 31 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Broncos -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Lynch’s last stand
Lynch hasn't played as much as he or the Broncos hoped after the team traded up in the first round of the 2016 draft for him. He lost a training camp battle with Trevor Siemian for the starting job as a rookie, and he may have lost another one this season if his shoulder injury hadn’t ended it after three preseason games. He has appeared in only four games total, starting three and losing two of those. In his only appearance this season, Lynch hit 9-of-14 passes for only 41 yards with an interception before leaving a 21–14 loss to Oakland with an ankle injury. Would a big game against a Chiefs team with nothing to play for even be enough to keep the Broncos from looking elsewhere for the long-term answer at quarterback in the offseason? Lynch would love to at least find out.
2. Mahomes makes his debut
The Chiefs would have been fine with Mahomes watching and learning all season behind Smith, but getting him some live reps without the pressure of having to win is even better. Mahomes was so impressive at times in the preseason making big plays that some wondered if he might supplant Smith during the season. Instead, Smith has shed his rep as a dink-and-dunk specialist — he leads the NFL in yards per attempt and passer rating — while throwing for career highs in yards (4,042) and touchdowns (26) with only five interceptions. Still, the Chiefs drafted Mahomes for a reason. Some still think if Smith again falters early in the playoffs, he may find himself elsewhere next season. Chiefs fans would likely feel a lot more comfortable with that scenario if Mahomes plays well this weekend.
3. It matters to these guys
Nothing is really on the line in the standings, but several players have something to play for, even if it’s something personal. Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas (right) has a streak of five straight 1,000-yard seasons that he would like to see reach six. He’ll need 108 yards to hit the mark, but with the rest of the Denver receiving corps banged up, he could see lots of attention from the Chiefs. Several Kansas City players have reason to want to play, although they will certainly not complain if they are held out to stay healthy for the playoffs. Rookie running back Kareem Hunt has 1,292 rushing yards, 13 behind NFL leader Todd Gurley. Tight end Travis Kelce has caught at least one pass in 63 consecutive games. And guard Mitchell Schwartz has never missed a snap in his six-year career, playing more than 6,200 in a row in 95 games.
It’s hard to say how many Chiefs starters are going to play and for how long in this one, but the only thing we know for sure is that in two seasons, Paxton Lynch has done nothing to suggest he is a future franchise quarterback. Until he proves otherwise, we’ll be betting against him.